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Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch

Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch


You know how sometimes you just keep tripping over the same idea all day long, and you think: Maybe I should write about this? Well, the thought that has been popping up for me today—and I suppose all week to tell the truth, is the word 
comfort. What does comfort mean to you? Maybe you’ve never given it much thought. Nor had I until this week, but I  was finally curious enough to look it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary.

As a verb, the word comfort (the aforementioned dictionary says) comes from the late 13th-Century term conforten, meaning “to cheer up, console.” It’s from an Old French term conforter, meaning “to comfort, to solace; to help, strengthen.” This, in turn, comes from a more decisive Late Latin term meaning “to strengthen much.”

To less precise minds (like mine perhaps) there might be a shorter way of getting to the same idea. “Con/com,” (we all know that means together) and “fort,” something you hole up in to fight off a real or imagined enemy. When I was a kid we made forts out of piles of leaves the city dumped on our vacant lot so my father could till it under the next spring and turn our North Carolina clay into something he could grow vegetables in. There are good guys and bad guys when you’re playing fort, and the ones fighting with you to protect the fort are so undeniably on your side that even at the age of 8, no one had to explain it to me.

I really think this childhood imagery sheds important light on the subject of comfort, which the etymological dictionary somehow entirely misses. It’s too tempting to stand off to the side and posture as the “strong one” telling the “weak one” how they ought to deal with the fight; and then go merrily home to curl up with a Good Book, forgetting about the whole thing. But wait. If we’re together in a fort . . . your sadness is my sadness, every missile that hits you hits me. I feel what you feel, I’m in there with you. Now, that kind of friendship gives comfort.

But who hasn’t had the experience of suffering while well-meaning but detached friends gather to throw advice at you safely from one side while a threat still looms on your other side? They are determined they will prove their worth by being an example of strength and wisdom. Without actually saying it, they manage to convey how lucky you are to have them alongside to support you with pat sentiments and just the right pithy quote. They are the friends of Job; the Grande Dame, bringing a basket of goods (baked by her servants) to the poor townsfolk. If you’ve had this experience and you’re like me, you came away with the clear understanding that such a person doesn’t know how to be (or care to be) in the fort alongside you fighting off the enemy and feeling the stress with you. Much easier to offer you the dictionary kind of comfort that can be telegraphed from miles outside of the fort: “Oh, sorry this is happening, but just keep keep calm and carry on! Would you like a muffin?”

This isn’t to say that you have to be in near proximity to someone to fight in the fort with them. You can be far away in miles and suffering in the fort—and you can live next door and be emotionally distant. No, hunkering down in the fort together requires connecting in your heart and mind in ways that only the inner-most circle of your friends, or those whose similar experiences are still fresh in their minds, will take the time to do with you. This doesn’t lessen the value of your other friends, we need all levels of friendship. But it does tell you where your inner circle is.

As some of these thoughts were churning in my mind this week, one of my three daughters came home from a two-year absence and while we were chatting casually in my home office, she picked something up from my bookshelf almost absent-mindedly. It was a Comfee Doll, something I found a couple of months ago at the Childhood Grief and Traumatic Loss conference that I attend every year.

The Comfee doll is a cuddly and loosely doll-shaped bean bag scented with yummy herbs like lavender. You can put it in the microwave to warm it up, but you don’t have to. It’s just as comforting to snuggle with at room temperature. Kids love them, but as I learned from the reaction of my adult daughter—and from my own as well—you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate them.

“Oh, but how shallow is this?” you’re surely thinking now. “She starts off talking about making real connections when you’re suffering; and ends up implying that  an inanimate pile of beans, herbs and fuzzy cloth could take the place of human companionship.”

Well, judging from the way I’ve seen people try to comfort children in the past, I might venture to say that many of those kids would have been far better off with a Comfee Doll than facing the realization that nobody is interested in engaging with them in the trenches. And that impression is only reinforced when I see how children and adults alike cling like drowning men to these non-judgmental, soft and cozy, sweet-smelling, hug-in-a-bean-bag creatures.

Yes of course—we’d all prefer a real person fighting in the fort with us when it gets right down to it. But I’d have a Comfee Doll over a Grande Dame with a basket of croissants any day, and I’m willing to bet you would too. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the best of companions who are willing to hole up in the fort to endure the wearying bombardment alongside you, there will always be those times when sleep eludes and a Comfee Doll is just the thing to help you drift off into a much-needed lavender-scented dream.

FatherDaughterFor Father’s Day I had intended to post an in-depth article about the genetic and epigenetic influence fathers have on their children. In doing so, I’d hoped to talk about Annie Murphy Paul’s book Origens, among others. Sadly, Father’s Day follows the last week of school in our house, which is just about the busiest time of the year for us. 

Therefore, to save myself time and sanity, and to ensure I will be available to the fathers in my life tomorrow (especially the amazing father  of my daughters), I’ll direct you to a few articles that will give you a hint about where future research will take us:

Dad’s Life Stress Exposure Can Affect Offspring Brain Development

PHILADELPHIA, PA; June 12, 2013—Sperm doesn’t appear to forget anything. Stress felt by dad—whether as a preadolescent or adult—leaves a lasting impression on his sperm that gives sons and daughters a blunted reaction to stress, a response linked to several mental disorders. The findings, published in a new preclinical study in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, point to a never-before-seen epigenetic link to stress-related diseases such as anxiety and depression passed from father to child.
(Full story . . . )

Like Father, Like . . . Daughter

Baseball hard-hitter Harmon Killebrew tells a story that hints at the importance of fathers to boys: “My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard,” he says on his Web site. “Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’”  Obviously, Killebrew’s father was tuned in to the needs of his sons, an admirable quality that seems only natural in a man. We accept that every boy needs a father as easily as we accept the notion that he needs a dog. But while society is beginning to acknowledge that a father is more beneficial than a dog to a boy’s well-being, the question of how fathers contribute to the well-being of their daughters has all but been ignored.
(Full story . . . )

Linda Nielsen: The Lost Relationship: Fathers and Daughters

Linda Nielsen is a psychologist and professor of adolescent psychology and women’s studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Author of Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship You Always Wanted with Your Dad (2004), Nielsen also teaches a “Fathers and Daughters” course, the only one of its kind in the United States for nearly 20 years.
(Full story . . . )

Happy Father’s Day to all from Mom Psych~

It’s the American holiday called Mother’s Day, a time to let Mom know how much we appreciate all the little things she does to help us reach our potential. We’ll start with the reminder that “Mom” upside-down is “Wow.”

Of course, as much fun as Mom is, she also helps us in some pretty serious ways. (Keep your shirt on, Dad, we realize parenting isn’t all about Mom. But we’ll get to you next month.)  In any case, maybe the following video will make a point about just how crucial that parent-child bond is to a child’s lifelong mental health:

Attachment is the primary process through which children develop self regulation. Unfortunately, as much as researchers know about the importance of secure attachment, many parents don’t know how to achieve it. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be all that complicated.

As you’ll hear in the following video, “we are basically genetically programmed  to seek a secure relationship with a caregiver.”

However, with our hectic lives and scattered extended families, we are steeped in a society that may be more “child illiterate” than ever before. Many parents have no clue about what children need most.

“Events that occur during infancy,” says this next  video, “especially transactions with the social environment–much more than with the physical environment–are indelibly imprinted in the structures that are developing in the first year of life.”

“We know more about children and development than anytime in history,” say researchers. “And yet, there is a huge gap between what is known and what is practiced in the culture.”

This might be a good time to point out that no one is expecting mom to be perfect. Even when we try our best to practice what is known, we’re going to fall a bit short some of the time. Maybe even a lot of the time. Fortunately, UCLA Neuroscientist Dan Siegel has some positive perspective:

Children pick up on our positive intentions, even when we fall short, says Siegel. (Whew!) That’s a relief to this less-than-perfect mother.

Here’s to a happy Mother’s Day, moms. Wow.

attachment fatheringAs May begins and Mother’s Day approaches, the American brain is primed to think of all things Mom and Motherhood. And so it is that the New York Times finds it opportune to ask, “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism? In particular, has the trend of ‘attachment parenting’ been bad for working moms?”  Weighing in on the debate are experts and authors across the parenting spectrum, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik (Beyond the Sling) to Pamela Druckerman, whose discovery of wisdom in the parenting approach of the French inspired her to write Bringing up Bébé.

Rest assured, you will not often trip over ideological debates on Mom Psych.The focus here is on research rather than opinion; and debates tend to be opinion on steroids. But any excuse to bring up a good study will serve, and the NYT debate does open the door to a few interesting bits of research.

My favorite bit  has to do with how our brains work in debate mode. Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman would tell you that your political preferences go a long way toward determining what arguments you’re willing to buy into. Not necessarily because you’ve weighed the issues, but because your brain is good at jumping to emotional conclusions about what it likes or doesn’t like— pretty much at first sight. Fortunately, if you can be persuaded to consider the evidence, it’s just possible you might override the initial emotional response. But, says Kahneman, the brain’s analytical mode (what he calls System 2) is “more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions—an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs.” The brain, Kahneman explains, does not really like to examine where its beliefs come from or whether that source is reliable. It only wants to preserve them at all costs.

One of our unconscious but brilliant strategies for preserving them is to argue with “straw men” instead of the real opinions of other people. We unwittingly remold our opponent’s perspective into the most extreme version possible so it will be easier to knock down without requiring too much thought. After all, it takes effort to get inside another person’s head and accurately make sense of the contents, so we do what comes naturally: We make something up. You may have a straw-man habit  if people regularly interrupt you with, “That’s not what I’m saying.” We may even make up the entire premise on which our straw argument stands. These tendencies can clearly be seen in the NYT attachment parenting debate, and if we are honest with ourselves as we read through it, we may notice them in our own reactions too.

The first thing that may bother you is the debate question itself. It seems extreme to suggest that feminism has been destroyed, and the idea that attachment parenting might be responsible reflects a misunderstanding of the parenting style. As PhD in Parenting blogger Annie Urban points out, “It’s About Parenting, Not ‘Mothering.” Urban takes on French author Elisabeth Badinter’s assertion that this form of parenting enslaves women, and notes that there are enough responsibilities associated with childcare to keep men and women equally busy if dads will man up. Badinter says that in her country, at least, they don’t. Well, wise up, French dads, there’s a whole slew of research that says if they are lucky enough to have two parents, kids need both of them. That means dads too. You can say “I’ll do the cooking and you do the laundry,” but you can’t say “I’ll do the gardening and you do the kids.” Children are full-fledged family members who need to be emotionally connected to both parents equally. And connection is only possible when there is involvement.

As the debate continues, a veritable army of straw soldiers floods the battlefield. Attachment parenting is portrayed as a rigid system requiring mothers and children to spend all their time together” leaving none of the wise, French-parenting “distance” that would enable children to build “autonomy and resilience.” Of course, there certainly may be some in the attachment parenting fringe who can be described in these terms, but practiced with balance it is not about mothers and children spending all their time together. Nor is it about rigid co-sleeping rules, ignoring tantrums, extreme dietary restrictions, or any of the other straw man erected by those who don’t understand its basis. In fact, there is so much room for individual style within the attachment parenting “movement” (if it is to be so-called) that its families are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. What ties them together is one fundamental aim: to create a strong emotional bond that will encourage the development of children’s autonomy and capacity for resilience.

This is where the next bit of research comes in to clarify how children develop these important characteristics. We’ll go to the original source and you may be surprised  that it won’t be pediatrician William Sears, who perhaps deserves the credit for establishing “attachment parenting” as a movement.  It’s true he did lay down a long list of recommendations for achieving attachment, but Sears was merely interpreting the research, albeit through his own useful observations as a pediatrician. Attachment research actually began with psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has since been taken over by neuroscientists, who have expanded on the initial theory. What the research shows is that the areas of the brain that support autonomy and resilience are sculpted and strengthened by emotional attunement with caretakers. It isn’t distance that performs this miracle. It’s connection. Sure, children need age-appropriate practice in exercising autonomy and resilience. But they need a secure base of connection to work from.

Of course, every good parent aims for this connection (which may make everyone an attachment parent to some degree). But another funny thing about the human brain is that it loves simple categorizations and it also loves the tangible chemical high it gets from being able to categorize itself as “capable” and everyone else as “incapable.” And so we classify as wackos all feminists, tiger moms, wise French parents, and attachment adherents and refuse to see ourselves in any of them. Whereas if we could see them—as well as ourselves—without polarized lenses, we just might be surprised to find that we have much more in common than we might think.

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